Four formerly homeless people gathered in the Branford Common Room last night to share their stories of homelessness with over 20 Yale students and to educate them about the difference between panhandlers and homeless people.

The panelists addressed both the lack of city funding for local shelters and what they viewed as a hesitance on the part of Yale students to support New Haven’s homeless on a daily basis.

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“The homeless are still humans,” said Robert ‘Doc’ Craig, who did not say for how long he had been homeless. “They make bad choices, but it’s sad how we look down upon them.”

He added that when he gives a panhandler some money, even he thinks that they will probably go out and buy some drugs and some alcohol.

“But I give them the money anyway because I hope that they won’t spend the money in the wrong place,” he said.

The impetus for the event arose back in August when Jerry Choinski ’12 created a Facebook group titled “Yale Undergrads Against the (fake) New Haven Homeless,” the point of which is to provide students with a forum in which to share their concerns about the motives of the panhandlers in New Haven’s Broadway district, Choinski said.

On the group’s Facebook wall, five of the group’s 40 members have posted six personal accounts of encounters with the Broadway district’s panhandlers, whose needs, the posters said, are not as great as those of New Haven’s homeless. Choinski said he believes the Broadway panhandlers take advantage of what they perceive to be students’ generosity.

“Fighting hunger and homelessness is a very serious issue that Yale students should get involved in,” Choinski said. “However, our help needs to go to the right organizations like YHHAP where our donations will go to people that actually need it.”

Carl Farris, who said he was a drug addict and homeless person since his junior year of college until 2004, said at last night’s panel that he understands the frustrations of Yale students who feel disrespected by New Haven’s panhandlers.

“Some of these people have homes to go to,” he said in an interview after the panel. “But think to themselves ‘why should I go to work if there are these rich Yale kids who can give me money?’”

The creation of the Yale Undergrads Against the (fake) New Haven Homeless Facebook group was one factor that drove Shelter Now, one of the seven branches of YHHAP that seeks to address the problem of homelessness in New Haven, to host last night’s panel, said Gabriel Zucker ’12, co-director of Shelter Now.

He said that he can see how the members of the Facebook group take issue with what they view as New Haven’s “fake” homeless if they not aware of the challenges facing New Haven’s homeless. YHHAP Co-coordinator Simon Goldstein ’11 explained that the difference between someone who is homeless and someone who panhandles is that a homeless person literally does not have a home, whereas a panhandler, while definitely struggling economically, may or may not have a home.

“But that’s why we have panels like these,” Zucker said. “There are students that come in contact with homeless people who are not encouraging and the least likely to be successful in finding a way out.”

He added that he hopes students can find more ways to learn about the unique struggles of New Haven’s homeless, such as the difficulty of finding shelter during the winter.

Over the next school year, YHHAP and Shelter Now plan to create homelessness awareness programs both at Yale but also in New Haven elementary, middle and high schools.